Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

An Environmentally Sustainable Building
A Talk at the Dedication of Kennedy Commons

by Meredith Swinehart

Why are we gathered here today to celebrate a building that has no air conditioning, will soon have a roof made of grass, and whose floors, walls and countertops are made of crushed stoplights, cast-off blue jeans and straw bales?

We should certainly celebrate the uncommon and eclectic ingenuity behind the Kennedy Commons building. But we are here especially to celebrate a building that represents the deepest values of Santa Clara University. I would like to share with you today how I have come to see this building in that light.

Nearly four years ago, I entered this University with a love of nature. A budding environmentalist, I was - and still am - the kind of person who scours the grocery store for the most environmentally sustainable options, who would do almost anything to save a hurt animal, and who dissects every piece of trash I produce for its recyclable parts. And I don't make these choices to fill any excess free time. I practice these small acts of stewardship to constantly remind myself of my role as a member of a global environment.

Today, though I'd still spend an hour nursing a hurt bumblebee, my own environmental ethic has greatly matured. I more fully understand environmentalism as a commitment to all of creation: both hurt bees and real human beings. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line there has developed the common misconception that environmental responsibility comes at the expense of the needs of human beings; this could not be further from the truth. With the understanding that human beings rely on the resources of their environments, sustainability does not supersede human needs, but instead takes them into account.

Here at Santa Clara, I once took a class on 'environmental communication.' The object of the course was to analyze environmental discourse in its many forms. But what I really took from it was our discussions of environmental justice. Environmental justice is basically the idea that all people, regardless of race, national identity or socio-economic status, should expect fair treatment and meaningful involvement with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental policies. The class relied on a striking example of environmental injustice: The fact that the United States commonly exports its electronic waste to developing nations. There, people extract valuable precious metals from our old computers and cell phones in the hopes of making a few more cents an hour. In doing so, their water sources may become polluted and local residents commonly contract a variety of cancers and respiratory problems.

Now you may be wondering what this has to do with the building we are currently celebrating. It is related because the situation I just described is the result of a series of unsustainable choices; choices made to serve only the interests of the here and now. Sustainability, on the other hand, can be described as ensuring that the ways we achieve our quality of life do not prevent other people from enjoying a similar quality of life - that is, this building - what we're enjoying right now, in this place, does not stifle anyone's quality of life across the globe or in the future.

In this way, sustainability extends far beyond being a purely environmental issue. It is an issue of social justice, and therefore an issue to which every member of the Santa Clara community must make a commitment. For those of faith, sustainability is inherent in Christian ethics. For us, choosing to act in ways that alleviate the suffering of others is what we are called to do. Contained within the University mission statement is a pledge to "exercise our institutional responsibility as a voice of reason and conscience in society." This building is a testament to that pledge.

The Kennedy Commons building uses design and materials that minimize the structure's impact on the environment and people by maximizing the building's performance and productivity. I'll focus on one of the many unique features of this building in order to demonstrate how building in a sustainable manner has lasting positive consequences: let's look at the straw bale walls.

The straw bale used as insulation in the walls of this building is an agricultural waste product; if someone does not seek it out for use in a building like this, the straw may be burned, producing particle pollution and carbon dioxide. The straw bale reduces this building's energy needs for heating and cooling, decreases the demand for non-renewable traditional insulating materials, and lowers the building's energy bill. In a small but significant way, the use of this one material can lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, help stave off global warming and reduce the human health effects of pollution. Because I am speaking of only this one building, these links may seem like a stretch. But imagine if other institutions and homeowners followed suit. Billions of unsustainable choices certainly have an effect, and billions of sustainable ones can, too.

In light of this discussion, I hope you realize the true nature of this building as more than an interesting experiment in the latest building technology or a monument to the existence and use of truly bizarre materials (like stop lights and blue jeans). Rather, this building is a manifestation of the University's ethic; an ethic that integrates social justice, environmental integrity and reverence for creation, and which truly serves as a voice of conscience in our society.

Meredith Swinehart is an SCU senior and 2006 fellow in environmental ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
February 25, 2006


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